Getting into beer is a rollicking good time. For one, you get to drink tasty brews as “research.” That’s always fun. Along the way, you also get to geek out on the process of crafting the beers you love. After all, brewers are, in essence, chemists. And what better way to nerd out on science than in a discipline that leaves you buzzed?
Therein lies a bit of a barrier though. Beer, like most subcultures, has a specific language. That beer-specific vernacular is intimidating. When beer aficionados, brewers, and servers start throwing around terms like “ester” or “diacetyl” or “secondary fermentation,” the average beer drinker isn’t going to know what the hell they’re talking about. But this doesn’t have to be as hard as it seems at first glance. Esters and diacetyl are volatile flavor compounds that lead to fruity/flowery and butterscotch flavors respectively. Secondary fermentation is simply a second fermentation in a sealed container. See? We’re learning already.
To help you break into the world of beer, we thought we’d throw down some basic terms and explain what they mean. This is by no means a comprehensive list of beer-related buzzwords. This is a gateway to the larger beer world. Some basics that invite you to dive deeper. It’s also worth noting that where there’s a rule or definition in beer, there’s almost always an exception. Though that might seem annoying at first, once you get the hang of things it’s sure to be part of the fun.
Malts are the foundation of beer. This is where you start your flavor journey. Basically, malts are made from barley that’s “malted.” That means, that after the grains are harvested, they are germinated with fresh water until they start to sprout. Then the barley is dried, usually in a kiln, until the germination stops and the starches are converted into edible sugars. It’s in that kilning process that massive, foundational flavor is created for the final product of the beer. For instance, if smoke is being used in the kiln, you’ll end up with a smoked beer.
From there, the malt is milled into a grist. That grist is cooked with water to make a wort. That wort is then sent to a fermenter where yeasts are added to eat those sugars and create alcohol. Hops are added and, more or less, malted barley is now beer.
One last note on malts, while barley is the most commonly used, malted wheat is also super common. Wheat beer (hefeweizen) uses malted wheat in the same way as malted barley. However, the amount of wheat varies. In Germany, to be called a “Hefeweizen,” the beer has to be at least 50 percent wheat (with the rest being barley). Other types vary widely. Wheat malt in Berliner Weisse, for instance, is closer to 30 percent. American wheat beers can be anywhere from ten to 30 percent wheat.